One of the most magical aspects of live theater is that no two performances are ever exactly the same. No two audiences of any given show will experience the exact same thing. Bay Street Theater and Sag Harbor Center for the Arts Artistic Director Scott Schwartz, whose directing work extends beyond the East End, to London’s West End and even Japan, knows that more than most. So in the age of social distancing, an important question arises: how do we even begin to recreate that magic when we can’t experience live, in-person theater? For now, it seems, there’s no easy answer. But Schwartz isn’t losing hope.
Bay Street Theater’s virtual offerings have thus far sought to cultivate and maintain a community atmosphere and create magical moments for audiences. “The reaction’s been fantastic,” Schwartz says. “The main thing we’ve been doing is a new program, Fridays @ 5 Sip & Sing. It’s an hour-long cocktail party and singalong. We get wonderful singers and cabaret performers to do it. We’ve gotten over 400 people at some of these. We’ll absolutely be continuing that for the foreseeable future.”
The theater has also brought its extensive educational programs online, and that has extended beyond workshops for kids, with adult classes Introduction to the Joys of Opera presented by Divaria Productions and playwright Wade Dooley’s Wednesdays with Wade, a writing workshop. It’s very important to Bay Street that their annual summer camps continue in some form, as well. “Our plan for the summer is to offer our camps for ages 4 through young teenagers,” Schwartz says. “Our hope is to do some of that in person. We’re still trying to see how things shape up. If that doesn’t feel safe, we’ll offer them online.”
Bay Street’s signature summer event, the annual gala, will also return in a digital form. “We just feel it’s not realistic to ask 400 people to gather,” Schwartz says. “Instead, we’re going to create a fantastic online event which will be star-studded. We’re going to be continuing our new tradition of doing Broadway by the decade and this year we’ll celebrate musicals from the 1970s. We’re going to be honoring and remember different people. We’re hoping it will air in June. We want it to be really funny and delightful. We’re kind of modeling if on a 1970s telethon, so it will have that style. It’ll be a fun and special event. There’s something about doing something a bit nostalgic. ‘Ah yes, remember the glory days of the ’70s.’”
Unfortunately, due to government restrictions, the 2020 Mainstage Season has been suspended. “Under these circumstances we’re not going to be able to do any producing,” Schwartz explains, “including our comedy series and Music Monday series. We do feel if things start to change we could have some [smaller events] later in the summer.” This falls closely in line with the rest of the theater world—Broadway has gone dark until at least September. And it’s been tough for Schwartz, who had just opened the high-profile Prince of Egypt on the West End. His Japan production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame has also been put on hold. But the optimistic Schwartz has been able to put these instances into perspective. “It’s all just on pause,” he says. “At some point, things will pick up again.”
And despite the world of theater being a little worse for wear, Schwartz remains hopeful. “In these times it’s scary to say it, but the exchange of breath and life force between people, but the opportunity to look forward to a time we can come together and experience things that are uplifting and transformative to the spirit and which we share as a community and which happen only one time,” Schwartz muses. “Every single performance is different because the audience is different and things happen differently onstage and to have that sense of the impermanence of life and the power of the human spirit to come together to experience something is absolutely necessary. I do think that need to be together as a community, to gather, to share experiences and grow from them and be entertained by them is going to be more important than ever.”
For more on Bay Street Theater’s virtual offerings, visit baystreet.org.